Fried catfish is a classic Southern dish that, like so many peasant foods around the world, demonstrates how a delicacy can emerge from poverty. The catfish is a bottom feeder, a "trash" fish caught with trot lines and cane poles and stink bait—not with expensive boats or flashy lures. You don't scale it, you skin it. And when it's time to cook, you don't dust it with the refined flour of the upper classes but dredge it in the working man's cornmeal, fry it, and let it drain on brown paper bags.
It's something simple enough to make on a camping trip, or you can heat up a big 55-gallon drum of peanut oil and have a massive fish fry for friends and family. The Memphis/Mid-South area has seen a few modifications over the years, like the craze for Cajun blackened catfish in the late 80s and healthier grilled options in the past couple of decades. Our local Asian markets now carry live catfish in tanks for those who don't have the time to spend all day by a dark lake or slow moving creek. You'll also see it served in smaller nuggets, thick steaks, or even fancy nouvelle productions incorporating gastrique and microgreens. At the end of the day I always go back to the simple fried catfish.
Ideally you want local Mississippi farm-raised catfish, yet due to the price, most restaurants choose less expensive imports from China and Vietnam. (There was a recent attempt to rebrand premium domestic catfish as "Delacata", although I haven't personally heard that term around here.) People often complain about a muddy or dirty flavor, but the farm-raised cats are not as earthy as the wild ones, and a quick bath in buttermilk will remove any lingering aromas. Look for fish that is fried fresh to order, served hot with good seasoning in the crust (black pepper, a little chile powder, and crunchy cornmeal). An amber crust is better than a pale yellow one. I usually dress mine with a little tartar sauce and a good dash of hot sauce. And as good as the fish is on its own, the real test comes with the side dishes.
Here are my six favorite places to get fried catfish in the Memphis area; chime in with your favorites in the comments!
This post may contain links to Amazon or other partners; your purchases via these links can benefit Serious Eats. Read more about our affiliate linking policy.